In conversation with
by Alice Saville
photography | Stuart Armitt
We talk in the balcony of the Samuel J. Friedman theatre, as a team of technicians fit, or gaze wonderingly up at, a whole galaxy of white balloons. Constellations got a five star reception from the London press, but its success in New York is less certain: relatively few British straight plays manage the leap. Fittingly, then, we start our discussion by thinking about the way that critics talk about theatre design.
Tom Scutt's design for the play, a burst of pure white, glowing balloons, has been called "simple yet effective" but as he rages, mildly, "that is the very worst thing you can say about a design. I mean, fuck off! I shouldn't, but I find it really offensive. Simple means 'easily made and understood' and that is so unbelievably far away from what I would intend to do: something pared down, a minimal design, but simple is the last thing it should be because you are basically cramming the whole play into it, taking the components and distilling them to find something that will keep giving as the play goes on."
The struggle of mainstream theatre critics to find the language – or column inches – to talk about design seriously, comes from what he sees as "a lack of awareness of the designer's role. It's easy to forget that most people are under the assumpetion that it's the director's vision, and the designer is a craftsman not an originator."
Although there are still plenty of theatre designers knocking together Edwardian drawing rooms under the Wilde eye of a harrassed director, Scutt has a relationship with directors that involves far more origination.
Constellations was designed in close collaberation with director Michael Longhurst. It started out Upstairs at the Royal Court in 2012 as a freer, softer thing than the design currently being bolted into place on a Broadway stage. As Tom Scutt recalls, "when we first did it we got a balloon artist in – and when I say balloon artist I mean a woman who does weddings and things – and were able to get the balloons in the space and really move some shit around. It was really refreshing and liberating: something outside other processes of making design."
I wondered what it's been like working on the same show on its journey from the Royal Court to first the West End, and now Broadway – a common theme for Tom Scutt this year, since he also has productions of King Charles III and The Merchant of Venice moving to bigger, more gilded homes in theatreland. "This is the perfect show to discuss this point because the design is so amorphous and intangible. It was never designed to be this thing where you solidify it in a 3D model format and send it off to be built. But when we got to the West End, suddenly we weren't allowed to use real balloons for health and safety reasons – helium is inert so it would put out a fire, but I suppose they didn't want a load of melting rubber above peoples' heads. We had to go through the process of casting the things, and with that comes a certain level of science and maths that starts to restrict the scope of the design. But we still tried to keep it very organic, taking a number of the things into the space and just sort of playing around."
The fibreglass balloon shapes are lit by chromospheres, which are "balls of light smuggled in amongst the cast balloons" – as their pure white lights accidentally cycle through to neon pink and green, Scutt jokes that "every time those colours come up I shout out "Snog!" because it's so gaudy, like the inside of those frozen yoghurt shops. We have to keep it monochrome." The balloon forms themselves are treacherous too: their little knots snapped off in storage after Constellations' West End run and had to be remade in more durable latex.
As Constellations' balloons assemble in airborne stasis of indefinite duration, revivals or transfers of other shows Tom has worked on cluster over London. The agonisingly accurate satire of the royal family post-Elizabeth II, King Charles III has moved from the Almeida to the West End: Scutt reminisces that "we originally wanted to set it in Tudor England but it felt so utterly self-indulgent. It's the most arrogant guesture in the world to write a Shakespeare play about the current royal family." His eventual design saw director Rupert Goold pass over Scutt's pet idea of a lion in a glass box onstage "lion in state, like the art installation with Tilda Swinton" in favour of a monochrome costume design and bricks walls that created "that really potent feeling without having to say anything."
Occasional misfires involving big cats aside – "I got really sad about that one, he didn't even give it the time of day!" – Scutt and Goold have a close working relationship dating right back to 2007, when Scutt won the Linbury Prize with a response to a brief set by Goold. Scutt explains that "time is really precious, as these are tough jobs, and your diary gets busy. There's a real urgency to these meetings, so if you get into each other's heads quicker it's just so much better. As with any successful relationship it's got to be about a shorthand, and the way you can second guess each other in each others' absence, and to fit into each others' sensibility. The notion of a director and a designer being separate can often seem very foreign to me: you're a united front producing this piece, one thing, like a horrible lovechild of the two of us with glasses and long hair."
Scutt's playful with the way he marries – or flirts with – words, and this same energy carries into his work. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice, currently playing at the Almeida Theatre under his newly-minted artistic directorship, is a prime example. Set in Las Vegas, it morphs Portia's trial for potential husbands into a tacky tv gameshow – "we had a lot of fun working out who all the characters were going to be and fitting them into our world." But he's also mindful that "you can spend so much time eating into a line or paragraph, and filling it with meaning and innuendo. That digesting and redigesting is enjoyable in rehearsal, but if you do too much of it when you coil it back up it's like being on crack. People appear in their innocence for one time only, and a lot of bad decisions come from forgetting that."
His concern for an audience coming new to a densely-packed play has led him to "a principle of starvation and reward." This principle was particularly rigorously exercised in 2013's Mr Burns, also at the Almeida, which progressed from post-apocalyptic refugees recounting Simpsons episodes in the dark, round real fires, to a third act pantomimic spectacular glistering with gold and pop cultural references: "the psychological effect is that you possibly feel there's more than there is because you're so starved at the beginning."
American playwright Anne Washburn could have written Mr Burns as a three-stage trial for theatre designers: each of its three acts starts afresh, in a damaged new world still stewing in a thermo-nuclear catastrophe that forges The Simpsons from comfort to cult. Its struggling characters still have "stone cold evidence of the show's visuals so if anything changes, it has to be a conscious choice. You get to be a really visible designer." For Scutt, this meant a chance to "embrace the kind of low-brow gritty pop references which people are terrified of in the theatre, projected 75 years on, and thinking about what's going to last, in terms of branding and iconography. It's actually terrifying, because this is what we leave behind and it's really trashy and awful!" It's a way of working that fits into Scutt's years of designing the Lyric Hammersmith's annual pantomime: "it's like therapy when you do a panto – after a year of headscratching it's like it all suddenly explodes into the here and now."
Despite the critical mauling Mr Burns recieved – including Tim Walker's review of the venue's air-conditioning which featured the line "three hours of utter hell" – Scutt explains that "we approached it with a fearlessness I haven't seen before, and it genuinely changed the way I think about my work. I've never been involved in something where I give less of a flying fuck about what people think about it, which is a huge achievement actually, because theatre's the only art form where we're still trying to impress our parents."
"it's such a terrifying leap of faith going into a job like this. As a young designer, you will lay your body down in a puddle so people can walk over you. Designers are the most passionate and meek, dedicated and downtrodden people. You work like absolute crazy in your formative years to solidify yourself and it becomes really addictive. But I'm lucky to be at a point where I can almost say "done", to turn down the work. It's hard because every bone in your body says make it make it, you need that money, it's a great show, but that can really stultify your creativity."
Not that Scutt plans to rest on his Homerian laurels any time soon. He hopes to move into directing theatre "but it's not proving easy. It's something I've had for a long time. It's not about a jobswap, it's about having something you want to be in charge of, with support. It's really important to not stand still and embed yourself. I've always learnt on the hoof. I've done very little assisting, I've learnt in the open in front of people and made mistakes. It's a laboratory, so you keep on pushing it and see what you can do."
This article first appeared in the New Wave issue of Auditorium